Installment number four of our series features drag racing's Big Daddy, the Ironman of off-roading, an American driver who won international fame, and a photographer who captured many of the era's greatest racing moments on film.
Don Garlits is the Michael Jordan of drag racing -- the best-known name in his sport and the standard by which all other participants are measured. In 1955, he won the first organized race he entered in the first dragster he built. By the time he retired at age seventy-one, shortly after hitting 323 mph in one of his last quarter-mile passes, Big Daddy had won a record 144 "open" races and seventeen national championships in the top-billed Top Fuel category. He was also the first racer through the 170-, 180-, 200-, 240-, 250-, 260-, and 270-mph barriers. Over the years, he built thirty-four numbered race cars, known as Swamp Rats in honor of his Florida roots. Unlucky number thirteen nearly killed him in 1970 when the transmission exploded, shearing off part of his right foot. After that, Garlits abandoned the traditional slingshot template, where the cockpit is hung behind the rear axle. Swamp Rat XIV revolutionized drag racing by mounting the engine behind the driver and a gigantic wing over the rear tires. Fifteen years later, Garlits also introduced the Top Fuel world to the flipping-over wheelie, known as a "blowover," in Swamp Rat XXX, a car so radical that it's enshrined in the Smithsonian.
The public face of off-road racing during the 1980s and '90s had a predictably stout physique, the craggy good looks of a Hollywood war hero, and a nickname so fitting that no self-respecting public-relations maven would have dared to make it up: Ironman. In 1973, in his first off-road drive -- which he got only because the regular driver fell off a ladder and broke his leg -- he won the Ensenada 300. Three years later, driving a Volkswagen-powered buggy, he became the first person to drive single-handedly to an overall Baja 1000 victory, and the Ironman was born. Over the next quarter century, Ivan Stewart earned four SCORE off-road championships and won a record seventeen Mickey Thompson stadium truck races. Promoted in advertising campaigns by Toyota, his longtime sponsor, Stewart also became the sport's most recognizable icon. He claimed the last of his three overall Baja 1000 victories in 1998 after a grueling nineteen-plus-hour solo drive that required an epic 100-mile finishing sprint to La Paz to make up time lost due to a sticking throttle. As Stewart explained later, "I knew that it would be better to drive that truck off a cliff and wad it up into a little ball than to finish in second."
John Fitch's resume traces the high points of a stellar career. He was an entrant in the first road race at Watkins Glen in 1948. The first SCCA national champion in 1951, driving for Briggs Cunningham. A member of the first American team, with co-driver Phil Walters, to win an international road race in an American car -- a Hemi-powered Cunningham C-4R at Sebring in 1953. Class winner in the Mille Miglia (in a Mercedes-Benz 300SL) and overall winner in the Tourist Trophy (with Stirling Moss in a 300SLR) in 1955. But the measure of the man is better demonstrated by his actions at Le Mans that year. Shortly before Fitch was scheduled to begin his first driving stint, the Mercedes-Benz raced by his co-driver, Pierre Levegh, flew over an embankment and scythed through the crowd, killing at least eighty spectators. Fitch implored the team manager, Alfred Neubauer, to withdraw the two remaining cars. "If Mercedes won," Fitch says, "I felt it would have been a public-relations disaster." To this day, Moss -- whose Mercedes was leading at the time -- resents the company's decision to retire from the race. Fitch, meanwhile, spent most of his postracing life promoting highway and racetrack safety.
In the spring of 1954, Jesse Alexander headed off to Europe with his young family, a 35-millimeter Leica, and a loosely defined plan to become the Henri Cartier-Bresson of the motorsports world, freezing the "decisive moment" on film at celebrated racetracks across the continent. During the next decade, Alexander put countless kilometers on a Volkswagen Microbus, a Porsche 356, and then the Mercedes-Benz 300SL that had won Le Mans in 1952. But he didn't merely chronicle the racing scene as a photojournalist. With his empathetic eye, he also captured the essence of the intoxicating but dangerous sport. Consider, for example, his iconic portraits of Phil Hill, smiling wearily after winning at Monza, and Jim Clark, his eyes haunted after dominating the Belgian Grand Prix on a Spa-Francorchamps circuit he feared and hated. Etched on their faces is the strain of competing in the world's deadliest form of entertainment. A decade later, Alexander's work was featured in a boldly oversize book, At Speed, full of luscious, full-color images that forced viewers to reconsider motorsports photography as fine art. But it's his earlier black-and-white photos -- quiet, understated, elegant, and direct -- that we remember best as essential artifacts of racing's Golden Age.